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  • Daniel G Opperwall

Baseball and the Infinite

[George Mullin, c. 1909]

Chapter 8 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic, After Virtue, treats in part the problem of the social sciences, and their inability to make any absolutely certain predictions about future human behaviour. MacIntyre argues (correctly) that we cannot ever know for sure what people are going to do (whether examined as individuals or as groups) for several reasons. To illustrate one such reason, he invokes game theory, and makes the following comment:

I am trying to predict what move you will make; in order to predict this I must predict what you will predict as to what move I will make; and in order to predict this I must predict what you will predict about what I will predict about what you will predict . . . and so on. At each stage each of us will simultaneously be trying to render himself or herself unpredictable by the other; and each of us will also be relying on the knowledge that the other will be trying to make himself or herself unpredictable in forming his or her own predictions. Here the formal structures of the situation can never be an adequate guide. A knowledge of them may be necessary, but even a knowledge of them backed by a knowledge of each player’s interest cannot tell us what the simultaneous attempt to render others predictable and oneself unpredictable will produce.

This rather beautifully convoluted prose points at a simple and fairly significant point. It is also (unintentionally) a fine description of one of the most delightful aspects of the only truly philosophical athletic pursuit: baseball.

Any fan of the game will immediately recognize in MacIntyre’s words a summary of the the mental work of every pitcher and every hitter in the moments before a pitch is thrown (my apologies to the catchers who play a role in all this, and of course the defense, and the managers, and the coaches, and all the rest—for the sake of simplicity I have left them all out in this essay). As the pitcher stands on the mound, fidgeting with the ball inside his glove, he considers which of his three to five pitches he ought to hurl next. His aim (on the psychological side) is to throw precisely what the hitter is not expecting, while also (on the athletic side) making the pitch appear (at first) indistinguishable from any other, such that the batter is forced to guess at its true nature. The pitcher, in short, seeks to be unpredictable.

The hitter, for his part, seeks precisely to predict what will come at him. As he stands in the box, any hitter worth his salt is flipping through a mental rolodex filled with data like his opponent’s pitch selection percentages, location tendencies, and outcome rates. This data he must now combine in the moment with his knowledge about what has been thrown so far in the game, the current count, men on base, and myriad other game-specific concerns. This, in turn, he must blend with his experienced qualitative assessments of, for instance, how well each one of his opponent’s pitches is working today (which affects tremendously the odds of what comes next), along with that indescribable mystery that is gut instinct. A good hitter in today’s major leagues is sincerely thinking about all of these things and much more as he stands in the box, and the better his knowledge and baseball instincts, the better his predictions will be.

What MacIntyre points out so well is that the interplay of prediction and evasion in such a moment precludes certainty about the outcome (in this case, which pitch will be thrown). For while every good batter is building his predictions on all the above data and evidence, every good pitcher has all the same information in his own head, and hopes to use it to remain unpredictable. To do so, he seeks to predict something himself, namely, the outcome of the batter’s predictions: the batter’s own guess. On the basis of what he thinks the batter is expecting, the pitcher will choose either to evade this expectation (though perhaps the batter banked on that evasion), or to throw just what everyone assumes that he will throw, but to throw it so effectively that it cannot be hit (a move meant to defy the entire process of prediction by undercutting its value through sheer athletic prowess—a human capacity about which MacIntyre makes no comment).

The fans, in the meantime, are making their own predictions about how the interplay of these players’ thoughts will turn out. They sit watching, perhaps with bated breath (if the game is important enough), their thoughts tumbling around and around. And in this way dozens of calculations rolling through two minds on the field become potentially thousands or millions of predictive calculations in the minds of myriad fans in a matter of a few seconds. The amount of raw human intellectual power devoted to the simple, and (in the grand scheme) frivolous question of what a pitcher is about to throw (and what the batter will do with it) is astonishing to reflect on. The tension of all these whirling predictions builds as the seconds tick on. As the pitcher gets into his stance, our minds hunt for just a little more data—something in his feet, or in the grip, or in his demeanour that can tell us what we are about to see. The batter searches the same data for a final clue. The pitcher rises into his motion, desperate hope for one or the other outcome floods the fans, a flash courage bolsters the batter. And then...

Well, then comes the moment in which our predictions will be confirmed or thwarted. The pitch is thrown. In a split second, what was impossible to know for certain has become a matter of simple historical record. Perhaps it is nothing more than a swing-and-miss at a low curve that the batter did not see coming, or a sharp foul ball off a high cutter that he predicted but decided to waste. Indeed, most of the time in baseball, the moment into which we have invested all of the predictions described above results in no perceivable immediate impact on the game. Uncertainty has turned into history, for better, for worse, or (quite often) indifferently.

Which means that there is only one thing now to do: move on to the next pitch, starting all over again.

Our approach to human existence is increasingly mechanistic and predictive. We monitor each other’s behaviour with ever more sophisticated technologies, and we are able to predict (and thus manipulate) each other with ever greater effectiveness. We are finite creatures, and thus we are are predictable most of the time so long as we have enough data about ourselves, and the amount of such data we now have has grown beyond what we can truly conceptualize. The potential power of that fact can be downright terrifying, as we are seeing more each day. The social consequences are a subject of endless discussion.

A focus on data-fueled predictions has had a very notable impact on baseball as well in recent years. The modern age of big-data baseball is increasingly marked by players and managers making better and better predictions with the help of computer metrics (a trend that I actually think heightens the excitement of the game). Were the game, and its attendant predictions, exclusively defined by finitude, one might expect that eventually, as computers become ever more powerful, every player and manager would be able to predict with certainty what pitch would be thrown to him next, where every hit ball would land, when every runner would attempt to steal, and so on, and the game would spin hopelessly into tedium and repetition.

But such an eventuality is impossible—not just technologically, but theoretically—and this relates to MacIntyre’s observations about predicting behaviour. The game of baseball (like society more broadly) is not defined exclusively by finitude, and this is not only because of the almost random physical vicissitudes of playing any sport. Baseball remains outside the realm of absolute prediction in large part because the human beings who play the game partake in the infinite at every moment (more than we might often realize). We are forever capable of simply defying prediction with flourishes of free choice that no alogorithm can possibly account for. Even should just one pitcher and just one batter face off for an infinite number of at-bats, both armed with a machine-learning system monitoring the ever more abundant data of their contest, never would any hitter (or pitcher) be able to draw his computer prediction rate up to 100%, at least not if the opponent were privy to the algorithm as well. After all, the pitcher whose decision has been purportedly determined with certainty could always (knowing the same prediction) simply refuse to throw the scheduled pitch. Indeed, he could simply refuse to keep playing the game. Or he could throw his pitch not over the plate, but directly at the computer somewhere in the dugout, shattering the damn thing once and for all. It probably would not have seen that coming.

Hundreds of times over the course of every baseball game (and there are over 2400 in the major leagues alone) each pitcher and batter brings us face-to-face with the curious way in which human creatures appear to partake of infinity precisely by being finite in our particular way. Though in any game situation, the variables can theoretically be counted, though a pitcher’s choices are in fact fairly few, though the time to make a pitching decision lasts only a few seconds—still, amid all of these limitations, the pitcher’s choice about what to throw, and the batter’s expectation about what that decision will be, cannot be mechanistically defined or predicted with certainty. Each man, as a creature of free will, maintains a capacity to try and deliberately evade prediction, and there is forever one more step he can take in the back-and-forth, one more last-ditch maneuver to defy all expectation.

Indeed, we rely on this fact in order to give our lives any meaning at all, at least according to MacIntyre.

It is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be able to engage in long-term projects, and this requires predictability. It is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creations of other people’s projects, intentions and desires, and this requires unpredictability.

Today, we can well be forgiven if we find ourselves afraid that our own technologies will one day render our freedom and our unpredictability nothing more than an illusion. But in baseball, even if nowhere else, we can take heart that this can never be entirely accomplished. Here we sit, watching a fastball pitcher in a fastball count. The computers humming somewhere behind the dugout all say that a fastball is a near certainty based on data about this pitcher—perhaps even approaching 99%. The hitter knows all this, and being one of the great fastball hitters in the game, he will almost certainly make contact with the pitch. Banking on that, a base hit is likely, maybe even extra bases. And so here we sit, feeling steady about our predictions, feeling sure that we are about to witness a hitter experiencing a small moment in the sun.

But the pitcher knows all this, too. He knows what the statistics, and even tried-and-true baseball wisdom, say he is going to throw. He knows that his opponent is no fool and will follow the predictions (and he should). And precisely in the pitcher’s knowledge of this, he makes his choice and exercises his wild and unbreakable capacity for defiance. A wicked slider rolls off the pitcher’s fingers mimicking perfectly the expected heater until the very final moments of its flight. As we watch the hitter spin himself around with a home-run cut, only to see the pitch tumbling hopelessly out of reach of his bat, something in all of us (no matter our team) claims a deep and decisive victory. In this moment, our hearts leap to be reminded that, just like the pitcher, we are the kinds of creatures who in spite of our finitude are somehow also not slaves to statistics and expectations. As the umpire calls the strike, as the batter shakes his head in frustration, as the count draws even and we set ourselves up to do it all again, we cry collectively to any who might hear: “Prediction, algorithm, data be damned—we will ever remain free.” And in this we show ourselves to be a slice of infinity bound in finite clothing.

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